Hive Content

Are Smart Speakers What U2 Were “Looking For”?

Another new application for the Smart Speaker universe…an album launch! Bono, The Edge and… the other one… hold on a second… Adam Clayton (we just asked Alexa who the band members were) will be offering fans exclusive content, both old and new, to accompany the release of Songs of Innocence on December 3rd.

U2 have a track record of experimenting and embracing new technologies when the unleashing a new piece of work. Not always to universal praise or enjoyment it’s fair to say, as anyone with an Apple device would testify when a previous album was automatically downloaded to iTunes whether you wanted it or not.

Based on what we’ve heard, we think the lessons have been learned and can’t see this getting anything besides high praise for masterminding a first-of-its-kind broadcast called “The U2 Experience”. It’s not intrusive, but for fans who activate it, it sounds like a treasure trove of added value and premium content.

With our background in broadcast radio, we can see the potential of Smart Speakers to be the radio of the future. Audio content readily available and personalised in a way ‘linear’ broadcasts simply can’t. Amazon are referring to this venture as a “new type of radio” that will feature historical music, live performances and interviews as well as exclusive new content. The U2 Experience will launch simultaneously across multiple time zones on Wednesday in the UK, USA, Germany and Austria and will be available to Amazon Music account holders via multiple platforms.

Clearly, this works for both U2, using this new platform to reach fans with premium content and a direct route to purchase of their record. For Amazon, a behemoth rock band (brand!) that will publicise Amazon Music as they look to compete with Apple and Google.

We will be watching closely to see if, crucially, this works for the consumer. As ever, an idea is only as good as its execution. Done well, this could be another big moment for Amazon’s Alexa platforms, and Smart Speakers in general. We’ll update our thoughts once we’ve had a play!

What Should My Alexa Skill Do?

As the dust settles on Black Friday it is clear to see, and no surprise, that Amazon had a game plan. Again, they took the opportunity to try and grab even more of the Smart-Speaker market.

They are already way out in front of their competitors with 70% dominance when it comes to these appliances, add to that Apple’s latest capitulations and it’s getting harder and harder to see that lead being curtailed.

As more and more households welcome in the friendly tones of Alexa as their own personal voice-first assistant likewise more and more brands and businesses want to take advantage and launch their very own “Skill”.
Tom Bradley of Code ComputerLove recently suggested (read his blog post here) that brands wanting to take advantage of this new marketing channel should proceed with caution:

“Brands eager to join the rush to produce voice-enabled experiences should approach with caution and, for some, it might be a matter of recognizing that the right choice is to say no to Alexa.”
Tom Bradley | Code Computerlove

Tom is completely right. As with every marketing spend, questions must be asked and decisions must be made as to if the channel, message, and method of delivery are going to achieve the desired goals. Equally the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that he also references is also valid.

I’ve had many conversations over the last few months with teams that have been tasked with “Looking Into” this new technology: Dip a tow in the water, fact-find and see whats out there. As much as approaching this channel with caution is important, there will also be rewards for those who are quick to act.

We have written before on this blog about the impact of “Voice-Activation” on SEO (which you can read about here) but for the most part how it pans out is educated guesswork. Being a “first return” in a voice search will obviously be of huge value but at the same time, how that return is ultimately decided remains to be seen and being among the trailblazers on this new frontier could help.

I have no doubt that there will be a time when having a voice-activated skill for your company or brand will be considered as vital as having a website or social media presence. There are pro’s and con’s to getting involved at this early stage and, as Tom suggests in his post, it won’t be right for everyone, but there is one important question to ask for any brand who does want to take the plunge:

Is there a NEED for my skill?

Every successful brand-led Skill that has launched to date has succeeded because it has fulfilled consumers need. Domino’s and Uber’s Skill’s allowed customers to access their products with greater ease whereas Johnny Walker (whiskey recipes) and Amazon Video (Bosch: A Detectives Case) used content to strengthen their emotional connection with their customers.

It’s unlikely a skill that only lists the features and benefits of your new product will make any real impact as it offers little to the user in return for being “sold to”.

If you are going to put your company into the voice-activated it is vital that you think about what you want to say, how you are going to say it and how that represents your brand in this new space. To help you do this, I’ve created the Wheel of 7 Alexa Skill Needs (bastardized from BBC Dmitry Shishkin, Digital Editor at the BBCs “Wheel of 6 News Needs”) if you’re new skill can’t tick one of these boxes, then maybe you need to start again!

-Provide (link to services ie: taxi, food delivery).
-Organise (diary, reminders etc…).
-Simplify (smart home enabled skills).

Smart Speakers: How Do You Use Yours? (Info-Graphic)

Research from Q1 of 2017 shows that “basic functions” top Smart Speakers usage.

There is little doubt that the potential of voice-activated technology is huge. The function of Smart-Speakers and their VO brothers and sisters are growing every day and their application as entertainment, business and communication tools is advancing at an astonishing pace.

However, as you can see, research from Q1 of this year shows that, for the most part, Smart-Speaker owners are using their devices for relatively simple functions. Web-searches and audio playing functions will always be towards the top of usage lists but as the technology develops I expect to see other, more complex functions also creeping into the list.

The challenge for any Skill/Action/App maker is creating functions that cause them to return time and time again, integrating usage into the daily routine. Engaging users creatively, solving real-life problems and identifying users needs are all key ways to create this kind of interaction and something we will be seeing much more of over the next 12 months of development.

Cancer Research UK use Amazon Alexa to fight cancer.

I’ve blogged before about the potential benefits of Smart-Speaker technology when it comes to health care (you can read about that here) and Cancer Research UK are the latest health organisation to realise, and tap into, its massive potential.

So, how is a clever voice in a plastic tube going to help fight cancer? Apparently, by monitoring your drinking habits.

Research shows that drinking alcohol increases the risk of various types of cancer including breast and bowel cancer and the less you drink the lower the risk.

As part of Alcohol Awareness week, CRUK have launched their “Alchohol Tracker” that can yep tabs of what drinks you’re throwing down your neck and warn you when you may want to reconsider that “one last drink” on a Sunday night in front of Netflix. The idea is that they can help people identify why and when they drink you can also help them reduce the amount they drink.

This Alexa Skill can keep tabs on your personal drinking limit goals, give you calorie data for your consumption and even offer hints and tips on how you can cut down. It’s a smart little Skill that taps into the idea that your Smart-Speaker companion is part of your daily routine. The tracker works best for regular, daily use and that’s a real challenge for any Voice-Activated app developer.

For now, its a toe in the water but for Cancer Research UK they are already considering what the future may hold:

“Given that the stage looks set for voice to become a major player in how we use technology to communicate in the future, this technology has the potential to help us overcome some of the challenges we face with written leaflets or websites.”
Katie Edmonds, CRUK Health Information Officer

It’s inevitable that Voice-Activate technology will play a major role in health-care over the next decade. The potential benefits to people with physical disabilities or visual impairments are clear but also its ability to provide information and answer questions without so much as touching a button (or lifting a phone) could be a huge benefit to services that are already seeing budgets reduced and free up funds for frontline services.

Watch a video of CRUK’s Alchohol Tracker being put to the test…

Read CRUK’s original blog post here.

Is seeing believing? The Amazon Echo “Show” Arrives.

This week Amazon launch the next incarnation of its Smart Speakers – the Echo Show. As with the Amazon Echo it will have the inbuilt Alexa Voice Assistant and access to Flash Briefings and Skills just as other speakers do. The first device with an integrated screen, what difference will a visual element make to the way devices are used and content created? Is it the “natural evolution”, as Amazon describe, or just a touchscreen plonked on the front? We’ll soon know.

The functionality is intuitive and appealing. Of course there should be an infographic when you ask for tomorrow’s weather. Of course it should show you the train times if you’re wanting to plan a route. This makes perfect sense but could arguably leave you wondering, why not just use a smart phone? Or a tablet? Smart Speakers’ success depends on the User Experience. You don’t want to have to get out your phone, unlock it, press a button and then ask for some information. You don’t want to have to walk across a room to grab a tablet. We want what we want, now. It’s for that reason the underlying use of a Smart Speaker wont change even with the new screen added, but it’s natural that a screen can enhance, rather than alter, the ‘UX’.

When you ask Alexa to play a song the Echo Show will automatically screen the song lyrics. In large font so it can be read from across the room. A nice to have even if seldom used. When you order a pizza a visual confirmation of your order still makes the most of the voice activated technology that makes it so convenient, but means you can check your order at a glance. ZERO User Interface is becoming OPTIONAL User Interface…there when and if you need it.

Where we’re most excited about the introduction of a visual element at Hive Content is where it could lead with changing the type of content we make. A recipe can now have visual explainers that still allow you to cook up a feast without needing to turn the pages of a book with food with mucky hands. A Flash Briefing could be executed via audio and video. Children could see the correct spelling versus the incorrect spelling they gave to reinforce learning.

As with every device, we will be spending many, many hours working out what it can do and what opportunities a visual addition to Smart Speaker technology might offer. Subscribe to our newsletter for our thoughts one we’ve had the chance to road test Amazon’s latest gadget.

BBC Launch Interactive Drama on “Smart Speaker” platform… it’s Ok!

When I first heard that the BBC were taking their first steps into creating entertainment content for the Amazon Alexa I was excited.

The news that aunty was having a crack at building an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure style Drama for the Voice-activated market was not only another sign of the potential and continued growth of the medium. It also presented that tantalizing possibility that something creative, innovative and engaging would be created for the burgeoning platform… and now its finally here (on Alexa for now and Google Home soon).

This week, “The Inspection Chamber”, an interactive sci-fi comedy-drama from the BBC Research and Development team (who teamed up with Rosina Sound for the project) was released.

Inspired by computer games such as The Stanley Parable and Papa Sangre, and authors like Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams users take an active part in the adventure, playing the part of an unidentified “being”. The story revolves around said “beings” identification by a team of scientists and a computer named Dave. You are asked simple questions by the various characters involved and your answers influence the direction, dialogue and outcome of the story.

Build wise, the team developed a graphical story editor, which lays out the story in a visual form, allowing the content team to map out the user’s journey and the different routes that can be taken. A “story server” also keeps tabs on where that journey is up to enabling a user to dive back in at any time. These are similar tools to those used by Amazon themselves in the creation of their own Skill, “Bosch: A Detectives Case”.

It’s not the most innovative of “Skills” on the market but what it lacks in boundary-pushing technology it makes up for in creativity and audio-production (an area so often ignored by voice-powered App makers).

In picking Sci-Fi as a genre the BBC have cleverly been able to embrace the occasionally “robotic’ nature of Smart-Speaker interaction. Much of the interaction within the story is via a robot character who shares many characteristics with Alexa. This helps create a more believable world in which the adventure takes place. The script also plays with the 4th wall, taking the limitations of the media, embracing them, and turning them into part of the story. It’s clever and it’s funny. What it lacks, however, is any feeling of progress. When playing the game I didn’t feel like I was truly effecting the story. My choices and responses felt arbitrary and although the characters would respond to me in a suitable fashion it didn’t feel like I was influencing the journey. Because there was no real challenge or reward for my efforts I didn’t feel truly engaged and my time within “The Inspection Chamber” was short.

The Beeb has dubbed this new venture “Conversational Radio” and you can see some BBC staffers interacting with the story in the BBC video below:

Apple Falling Behind in the AI Arms Race.

The words “Apple” and “falling behind” are rarely been seen together.

When it comes to innovation. “Cutting edge” or “blazing a trail” were more likely phrases as they changed the way we use our phones, listen to music and even watch TV. In the world of Artifical Intelligence, however, Apple are lagging behind.

A.I is a buzz word in the world of innovation right now and Amazon and Google are stealing a march. Whilst Apple have just launched the latest incarnation of their best-selling iPhone, some argue it’s not the phone of the future, as Apple claim. For example, Mohanbir Sawhney, McCormick Foundation professor of technology says:

“While Apple’s newest iPhone offers some impressive hardware features, it does not represent the beginning of the next 10 years of the smartphone.”

Is this the case?

Well, for years the hardware – the Phone itself – has been as important, if not more so, that the technology within. Improved battery life, crystal clear displays, wafer-thin and waterproof handsets were the focus. That focus is now shifting to the device’s ‘brain’.

Machine Learning is key to the user experience of any search-based or interactive device and with years of working on improving search results for its customers, Google and Amazon are leading the way.

So, what does this mean for Smart-Speakers?

With Apple, Amazon and Google all jostling for space in the market the effectiveness of their AI technology could be critical. Already Amazon’s Alexa device offers AI-powered skills and increasingly natural conversation with its virtual assistant, whilst Google’s new Pixel 2 phone has AI integrated into the device such as real-time translation services. Apple on the other hand, who once led the virtual-assistant market with Siri, have failed to keep pace with Sawhney predicting that:

“Today’s smartphones will likely recede into the background”.

With its “Home Pod” speaker Apple has put the emphasis on “Sound Quality” and a speaker built for consuming music. With Apple’s track record in this arena, this focus makes sense, although Amazon and Google are attempting to compete here with shrewd partnerships (between Amazon and Sonos for example). Building an entire Eco-system suited to Artificial Intelligence and the technology behind it is a far more long-term, and challenging, problem for Apple to solve.

Currently, the AI in Smart Speaker devices is in its infancy but as the technology grows and more “Voice Assistant” devices appear on the market the power and implementation of their machine learning capabilities will be key to their success. Not only will it impact the way consumers interact with these devices but also the ability of the machines themselves to interpret activity and convert the hundreds of hours of consumer interaction into meaningful reports for advertisers and marketers.

With the power and potential of Machine Learning for Smart-Speaker devices being so pivotal to their potential success, Apple could find themselves out of the race before its even begun.

Amazon’s Echo Heads to India

The already impressive market leading position currently occupied by the Amazon Echo, Echo Plus and Dot ‘Alexa’ devices (approximately 70%), has been strengthened with the news that devices are now shipping to India and its 1.3 billion citizens. What’s more, Amazon are giving discounts and incentives to people purchasing products – 30% off and a free year of Prime membership – so they are equally intent on ruling the roost in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies as they are in North America and Europe already.

Of course, that also means a potential extra 1.3 billion pairs of ears with the ability to hear your message. This explains why some of the world’s biggest brands are switching on to the necessity to embrace voice-activated content as a platform, both now and in the future, to communicate with customers. The global marketing world is getting ever smaller and the opportunities to reach people through engaging content ever larger. We understand that the next territory for Amazon’s Echo line expansion is thought to be Japan.

Multinational companies are well equipped to cope with multi-territory, multi-language barriers. What’s really exciting about this technology platform is how it might help smaller companies reach new customers in far-flung corners of the earth that may have felt beyond their reach until now. The underlying technology allows the transition of content into different languages seamlessly. You reach your customers, or potential new customers, where they are in their native tongue, wherever they are.

The world is yours.

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